Ten years down the line since 2011, when the Left Front lost power in West Bengal, the Communists were relegated to a third front as the state went to a high-voltage Assembly elections this time. In the meanwhile, they have been unseated in another bastion, Tripura, as well. But come Kerala 2021, the Left is hoping not just to retain power, but also to buck a four-decade old trend in the process.

Since 1983, voters in Kerala have alternated their mandate between the Left Democratic Front alliance and the Congress-led United Democratic Front every five years. Riding high on the image of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the ruling alliance of Left parties had the task to wrest the pattern this time. As far as exit poll predictions are concerned, Vijayan looks set to be at the helm of affairs in the southern state for another term.

The rival alliance of Congress did not put up a chief minister face and chose to rely on Rahul Gandhi, who is currently an MP from the state’s Wayanad constituency. He and party General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra campaigned extensively in Kerala in the bid to make inroads in the south, where the Congress is not in power in any of the states.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which won a seat in the state for the first time in the previous Assembly elections in 2016, banked on the popularity of “Metro Man” Elattuvalapil Sreedharan. The 88-year old engineer, credited with setting up metro rail infrastructure in several Indian cities, joined the party months ahead of the elections and was dubbed to be the chief ministerial candidate. However, it was not to be.

Nonetheless, when counting for 140 seats in Kerala Assembly begins at 7 am on Sunday, pollsters will keep an eye on whether the BJP is able to expand its presence in the state. The more significant matter of contention will definitely be whether the Left Democratic Front’s performance matches the predictions.

Under the Covid shadow

Assembly elections in four states, including Kerala, took place even as the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic had already started raging in India.

On 6 April, the day Kerala polled in a single phase, India reported 96,982 new cases of coronavirus, a staggering 429% more than the count exactly a month earlier. Active cases had gone up from 1.80 lakh to 7.88 lakh.

The curve in Kerala, however, was still flat. On March 6, it recorded 2,776 infections and was among the five states with the highest caseload. On the day of polling, it was not among the top 10 and in fact, reported a lower count of 2,357 cases.

However, the virus did cast its shadow on the elections.

Vijayan himself was hospitalised after testing positive just two days after polling. The Opposition alleged he had violated Covid norms and interacted with voters even after contracting the infection. Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja denied the accusations.

A day before election results, Kerala reported a massive 35,636 new coronavirus cases and 48 deaths. Vijayan said that “stringent measures” will be imposed in the state between May 4 and May 9.

In the fray

For the Left Democratic Front, the election was an acid test of Vijayan’s popularity. The 75-year-old chief minister branded himself as “captain”, the man who steered the state past devastating floods in 2018 and 2019, a Nipah virus outbreak in 2018 and over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic crash.

While reports suggested that he even hired a public relations team to build the state government’s image, Vijayan made sure that he stamped authority even inside his party. On his insistence, the alliance decided to bench those MLAs who have had two successive terms in the Assembly. As a result, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) dropped 33 MLAs, including five ministers. Ally Communist Party of India did not give tickets to nine sitting MLAs, including three ministers. The list contained big names like Thomas Isaac, EP Jayarajan and AK Balan.

Major announcements in the alliance’s election manifesto included 40 lakh new jobs, a 50% hike in farm wages, free housing for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and an increase in monthly welfare pension from Rs 1,600 to Rs 2,500. The manifesto said that the pension scheme would now also include homemakers.

Vijayan was also at centre of the Opposition’s sharpest attack against the incumbent government. A month ahead of elections, the customs department, which is investigating the state’s gold smuggling case, told the Kerala High Court that Vijayan and three ministers in his Cabinet and Speaker of the Assembly knew about the illegal activities through the United Arab Emirates consulate in capital Thiruvananthapuram, and even received kickbacks.

At one of his three rallies in the state, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the Bible to launch an offensive at the government. “Judas betrayed Lord Christ for a few pieces of silver,” Modi said. “LDF has betrayed Kerala for a few pieces of gold.”

Besides canvassing the Gandhi siblings, the Congress pitched the Nyuntam Aay Yojana, or NYAY scheme, as a poll promise. Rahul Gandhi said that the minimum income guarantee for the poorest families will be “tested” in Kerala if the United Democratic Front is elected to power.

The alliance was, however, dented by the exit of its long-time ally Kerala Congress (Mani), which sided with the Left Democratic Front in this election. The regional party holds sway among its traditional Christian vote-banks in districts like Ernakulam, Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta. However, whether the party aids the ruling alliance or hurts it remains to be seen, as the CPI(M) faced discontent within its ranks over allotting the Kuttiyadi seat to Kerala Congress (Mani).

The Congress, which contested 92 seats, would be banking on the performance of major alliance partner Indian Union Muslim League, which stood from 25 seats. The party won 18 out of the 22 constituencies it contested in 2016 and has a strong presence in the traditional Muslim-dominated strongholds in Malappuram district.

It would also hope in hindsight that the factions of two of its leaders, Ramesh Chennithala and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, worked in unison, and not otherwise.

Former Chief Minister of Kerala state Oommen Chandy (L) attends a public rally ahead of the Kerala state legislative Assembly elections in Kochi on March 29, 2021. (Image credit: AFP/Arun Sankar)

What the BJP might win

The BJP, which opened its account in the state in 2016 by winning the Nemom seat is looking to expand its footprint. The party does not stand a chance to come to power, but looks to better its 15% vote share bagged in the last elections, and convert some of the seven seats where it came second into wins.

In its manifesto, the saffron party promised monthly welfare pensions of Rs 3,500 and five acres of land to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families among other things. Some of its other poll promises, such as introducing laws against “love jihad” and provisions to protect Sabarimala temple customs, have created controversy.

However, “Metro Man” Sreedharan, in an interview, said that the BJP was being “painted like a communal party”. Sreedharan, who contested the Palakkad seat, also said that he would oppose the consumption of beef being “a strict vegetarian”, and asserted that incidents of “love jihad” indeed take place in Kerala. In another interview, he chose to walk out, miffed at “negative questions” on the two matters.

“Love jihad” is a conspiracy theory espoused by right-wing Hindutva activists, alleging that Hindu women are forcibly converted by Muslims through marriage.

The BJP too, did not announce a chief ministerial candidate, even as it was initially said that Sreedharan would be the party’s face. Later, the party clarified that it was not the case.

Exit polls

On March 29, all exit polls predicted a return to power for Vijayan.

The Republic-CNX survey projected that the incumbent alliance will win 72-80 seats, while the United Democratic Front will bag 58-64 constituencies. The ABP-CVoter offered a similar projection, giving 71-77 seats to the Left alliance and 62-68 seats to the Congress alliance. If these predictions come true, the ruling alliance would just cross the majority mark of 71 and end up suffering a loss of around 20 seats, from the previous election’s tally of 92.

However, India Today-MyAxis predicted that the alliance would better its last showing and win 104-120 seats, while the United Democratic Front was expected to get only 20-36 seats.

A poll of exit polls, an average of all predictions, put together by NDTV, showed that the Left alliance would win 87 seats and the Congress-led combine would manage to get 51 of them. The BJP could win two seats, the news channel said.